Book Review: The Diary of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The idea of running a bookshop can conjure romantic notions among certain bibliophiles. Wigtown, Scotland’s official Book Town and the setting of this memoir, has a bookshop that anyone can apply to run for a week throughout the year. Since opening it has never been short of volunteers eager to experience this aspect of the book trade. With the recent news that a bookshop in Wales has been given away as a raffle prize, the financial viability of high street bookselling must surely be under question. But what is the reality?

The Diary of a Bookseller takes the reader through one year in the life of a proprietor whose caustic honesty had already gained him notoriety with followers of the business on Facebook. Bythell readily admits to being naive when he purchased The Book Shop in 2001. He stocks mainly second hand titles and lives in a flat above the premises. Turnover is largely seasonal and profit insufficient to pay for additional full time staff. Thus the brunt of the work – finding stock, cataloguing, selling and otherwise disposing of books – falls to him.

Each work day has a short diary entry. Bythell observes his potential customers and shares with the reader his thoughts on behaviour. He comments on the part-time staff he employs and with whom he has a less than respectful relationship. He travels to view collections offered, often due to a house clearance and of varied worth. He shares his frustrations with the process of online book selling.

Bythell was raised near Wigtown and still has family in the area. He attended boarding school, has contacts in the wider national arts scene, and has friends who own fishing rights in sought after locations. Such privileges grant him access to interesting people and places but do little to ease the workload and stresses of running his business.

As part of the local community the author is involved in the annual literary festival, including opening up his home as a writers’ retreat. He has little patience with the successful scribes he hosts if they do not treat volunteers and staff with anything less than courtesy. This is an interesting attitude given his often volatile behaviour.

Entries during the festival offer further nuggets of dark humour.

“One year one of our house guests had a bath on the morning of the first day of the festival, and, through no fault of his, the bath drain started leaking the moment he pulled the plug, and a torrent of water crashed through from the bathroom, soaking the electric cooker, which exploded with a bang.”

The old building suffers many leaks, including water damage to a window display that resulted in mugs and other vessels being placed to catch drips. One customer offered their compliments unaware that it was not intentional.

There are other issues to contend with such as difficulty heating the building through winter. Customers come in out of the damp and cold, settle themselves in an armchair by the fire and read stock for an hour or so before leaving without buying. The piles of books they browse are left for staff to return to their shelves.

The descriptions of customer behaviour go a long way towards explaining the author’s exasperation with the people he encounters. As well as those who seek out books that they will then order from Amazon, or who price check against the behemoth and then ask for discounts, are the people who request a particular title and then, when it is located and proffered, inexplicably leave without purchasing. Others wander the stacks loudly declaring their love of books and how delightful this bookshop is before walking out empty handed. I feel relieved that when my daughter visited the shop a couple of years ago, she paid the asking price for the 1928 first edition she was after. Bythell reports that fewer people, either buying or selling, understand the worth of certain books in today’s market.

The strange titles of particular books customers seek are scattered throughout the pages: Sewage Disposal from Isolated Buildings anyone? or Donald McLeod’s Gloomy Memories? So strange did some of these titles appear that I became convinced the author was inventing. A quick check on Google suggests they do indeed exist.

A short comment piece at the beginning of each month in the diary is preceded by a quote from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories from 1936. The author ponders if he should have read this book before committing to the business.

“It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.”

Any Cop?: Bythell’s experiences may serve as a salutary warning to readers who believe running a bookshop would be delightful. For the rest of us it is a wry, amusing account that offers a behind the scenes look at a high street business I hope can somehow, despite the behaviour of its contemporary customers, find a way to survive.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Sal

Sal, by Mick Kitson, tells the story of thirteen year old Sal Brown who runs away with her ten year old sister, Peppa, following horrific events at their flat in coastal Scotland. Sal is determined to keep her little sister safe and to ensure that Peppa does not suffer the abuse that Sal has endured for years. They have been unable to seek outside help as siblings put into the care system are too often separated. Sal has looked after Peppa since she was a baby alongside caring for their alcoholic mother. The threat of care has been used many times to ensure the girls do not report their mother’s neglect, nor the way her current boyfriend treats them.

Sal is not like other children. She carefully orders all that is inside her head and conducts research to gain in depth knowledge of facts that interest her. When her mind wanders she becomes disorientated and struggles to breath. She rarely smiles.

Once Sal decided she would need to take Peppa away for her own safety she set about preparing everything they might need. Using Youtube videos and other internet sites she taught herself new skills, gathered together necessary clothes and equipment, and planned every element of their escape in detail.

Sal believed they would be safest living in a remote forested area, building a shelter and hunting for food as she had watched the likes of Bear Grylls do on television. Her experience of the police convinced her that they are not clever enough to work out where the girls will have gone, so long as they limit the trail left and stay hidden. It is people who are dangerous. Missing city girls are not expected to be capable of wild living.

The tale is told in Sal’s voice so the reader understands the practical nature of her thinking. In flashbacks the reasons for the girls’ escape is revealed. It is a devastating indictment of a system that should be functioning to protect vulnerable children, dealing with causes rather than the effects.

Sal and Peppa’s life in the forest presents difficulties that Sal shows skill and creativity in attempting to overcome. Peppa is a livewire and lacks Sal’s wary reticence. The younger girl is more willing to trust and befriend. The forests of Western Scotland may be remote but they attract walkers and holidaymakers. The sisters have been reported missing and triggered a media campaign. They run risks if they are seen.

The story is beautifully told with characters introduced to demonstrate that human kindness exists and that even badly damaged people need not turn bad. The rule of law and authority is shown to be a blunt instrument that requires a humane interpretation, too often lacking.

This is a deceptively simple, nuanced tale that I sat up late to finish, needing to know the outcome of Sal’s actions and ongoing behaviour. It is a story that is both heart-warming and heart-rending.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Mick Kitson will be appearing at the Marlborough Literature Festival with Adelle Stripe on Sunday 30th September 2018. For more information click here.

Book Review: Larchfield

Larchfield, by Polly Clark, is an intricately constructed tale of the devastating impact of prejudice and hate. Set over two distinct yet entwined time periods, it introduces the reader to two young poets – Wystan Auden and Dora Fielding. Both have recently had their debut collections accepted for publication but, for personal reasons, have left the supportive circle of the Oxford literary elite to live in the Scottish coastal town of Helensburgh.

The book opens in 1930 when Wystan travels north to take up a post teaching English and French at a small boarding school for boys, named Larchfield. His part in the tale is loosely based on known facts. The reader will know him as W.H. Auden and he wrote The Orators during the two years he spent in this place. The poem is a meditation on paranoia and repression set in Helensburgh. The author also lives here and mined her experiences to portray the suspicion with which those regarded as outsiders are treated.

Alternate chapters follow modern day Dora, recently married and expecting her first child, who moves to a seafront apartment constructed when a large house, once owned by a wealthy shipbuilder, was divided up into more affordable living spaces. Dora’s husband, Kit, was raised in Scotland and has an involving job as an architect so is easily accepted. Bereft of her friends and facing the challenges of new motherhood, Dora struggles with the local’s expectations of how she should behave.

Kit and Dora live below an elderly couple, Mo and Terence, who are popular members of the community and church. Dora finds her neighbours’ blatant antagonism difficult to bear. Kit is sympathetic but believes his wife is over reacting. When the health professionals also berate her, making thinly veiled threats for the choices she makes in caring for her child, Dora seeks solace in escape.

Wystan is barely coping with the legally required suppression of his desires. He visits a good friend in Berlin where their lifestyle is overlooked, but in early 1930s Germany this is about to change. The consequences when an individual will not conform to what an intolerant society considers necessary for the wider good has been proven to be devastating.

The comparative similarities in how Wystan and Dora are treated will be recognisable to any modern mother, as will Kit’s assumptions that his wife’s complaints are overplayed. When both protagonists refuse to back down and act as is demanded, the ramifications, although shocking, seem inevitable.

Like its protagonists, this is a book that does not conform to a standard. The originality is never a challenge as the prose is so satisfying to read. I felt Wystan and Dora’s pain and frustration, their determination to remain true to themselves. As Dora realised early on, belonging requires giving up something of self.

“Dora suspected she had probably never belonged anywhere […] while many thought her shy and brainy to the point of passionlessness, they were wrong. There had been love affairs […] These had always fallen apart at the point where she was expected somehow to change, to accommodate them in some profound way. She never wanted to, enough, and they certainly seemed to have no notion of accommodating her, and her need to scribble and read.”

The plot threads are intense but also entertaining. The writing throughout is utterly captivating. I enjoyed everything about this book but especially how it made me think and feel. It is a literary depth charge that I recommend you read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, riverrun.

Book Review: Sealskin

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Sealskin, by Su Bristow, is a poignant love story based on the mythical tale of the selkies – seals that can shrug off their skins to become human. I have read stories involving these beings before and remained unimpressed. Not so with this mesmerising interpretation. I was spellbound throughout, even though I guessed how it must end.

Donald is a young fisherman who lives with his widowed mother on a croft set above their village on a remote coast in north-west Scotland. He is a loner who does what he can to avoid going to sea. The camaraderie of his peers is something he observes but struggles to join in with. His memories of growing up in this small community are of being bullied and teased. He has learned to find his peace in solitude, to defer to his mother when decisions must be made.

On a clear autumn night Donald takes his small rowboat out to check the crab pots he maintains, putting to shore in a deserted cove when he spots naked young women emerge from a group of seals. He comes across their abandoned pelts and guesses what they must be. On an impulse he decides to violently intervene.

A distraught selkie is left with no choice but to accompany Donald to his home. There his mother quickly realises what he has done and concocts a plan that they hope will enable the young woman, who they name Mairhi, to stay. The local people are suspicious of any new face, especially one foisted on them without notice. Donald must step up his behaviour if he is to protect his catch and the child she will eventually bear.

He feels guilt for his actions but his mother convinces him that he must live with the choice he made. She sets about teaching the girl how to act amongst people, how to carry out the tasks expected of the women. They discover that Mairhi also has much to offer them. Donald’s life is altered forever.

The close knit community’s reluctance to accept any who appear different seems particularly pertinent given recent world events. They look away when discomfited by how some of their own treat their families but struggle to ignore that which they cannot explain. Mairhi has innate powers that she wishes to use for good; the dark suspicion with which these are treated puts her at constant risk of rejection.

Donald does his best to provide and make her happy but realises that she remains his captive. Although tolerated by his wider family and becoming a mother to his children, he fears what Mairhi would do if given the choice.

The writing captures the voice of the region to perfection. The harsh and beautiful landscape along with the stoic yet community minded people are expertly evoked.  This is proof that a story need not be original to be worth the telling. Curl up by a fireside and immerse yourself in this exquisite tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Sealskin Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

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Sealskin in published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Bonnie Road

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The Bonnie Road, by Suzanne d’Corsey, is a highly readable tale of modern day witches, and society’s attitude to their activities. It weaves elements of belief and the supernatural into evolving religion and ritual through the ages to offer an intriguing take on what some regard as “nefarious, unnatural activities”.

Set in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1979, the story focuses on two forty-something year old women. Morag is a witch who is just beginning to open herself to the full potential of her powers. Rosalind is a struggling widow who has left her mother and son in California to offer support to her dying uncle. She had only previously met him when she was a babe in his sister’s arms. Morag and Rosalind descend from families who have been next door neighbours for generations. Their homes form an integral backdrop to their shared history.

On arrival in St Andrews Rosalind befriends Helen, a lecturer at the university. Through her she meets the handsome Angus, an archaeologist on the brink of a significant discovery in a field outside the city. Angus is the son of a minister and has strong ideas about what is proper and how he should treat the fairer sex. Romance blossoms but Rosalind finds herself experiencing a sexual awakening which shocks them both.

Morag’s innate abilities enable her to understand what is happening to those around her, sometimes better than they understand themselves. She is keen to draw Rosalind out and encourages her to put aside her inhibitions and grasp the experiences on offer. As well as Rosalind’s awakening, Morag is dealing with the tragic consequences of a philanderer’s games, and is attempting to prevent him from damaging others with his selfish proclivities.

Alongside the bubbling witchcraft is a view of the established church, led by a cleric who is about to experience what he considers a holy enlightenment.  Reverand Paterson regards Morag as evil, a threat to the stability of the society he wishes to preserve. He fondly recalls the days when such people could be thrown off a cliff or burned at the stake.

It is suggested that women played a key role in Celtic ritual, something that Christianity sought to deny them. The attitudes of the men towards the women in this tale make the ancient ways appear more appealing than they are often portrayed.

What sympathy I developed for Morag was lost in the denouement. Despite the obvious evil being dealt with I would have preferred a less direct retaliation.

I wonder how much of my aversion to drug fuelled, naked dancing and abandoning oneself to enhanced sexual urges is down to the societal conditioning which this tale explores. I am comfortable with my antipathy towards the coven’s method of retribution. I found the conclusion of Rosalind’s tale more satisfying than Morag’s.

This is a well written, unusual and compelling story that contains a fascinating level of historical detail. The mix of pagan old ways and its modern renaissance presented alongside the changing role of the church provoked reflection. Behaviours considered acceptable change over time. Not all change has been progress.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint.

Book Review: Talk of the Toun

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Talk of the Toun, by Helen MacKinven, offers a mordant look at 1980’s working class Scottish life for a seventeen year old Catholic girl whose aspirations go beyond what is regarded as possible within her insular family and community. Written using the local dialect and language of the time, the tale is raw and uncompromising. It is hard now to believe that many of the goings on were then deemed unavoidable. One can only hope that attitudes have progressed.

When the story opens the protagonist, Angela, is looking forward to the end of the school term and the beginning of the long summer holidays. Her best friend, Lorraine, is to join Angela’s family on their annual trip to a northern English caravan site. Lorraine and Angela have been friends since they were four years old. They tell each other everything, and Angela dreams of them leaving home together to live in Glasgow where she hopes to go to Art School. Her parents have other ideas for her future closer to home.

The reader is shown life through Angela’s eyes. When Lorraine cries there are tears but also snotters to be wiped away; father snores and farts, emanating pungent smells; bathroom odours and stains are described in unpleasant detail; rooms reek of sweat, carpets squelch, clothes are marked by spilled food and skids. The lack of cleanliness and hygiene is regarded with distaste but accepted.

When Lorraine befriends another girl from school Angela feels betrayed. She remembers how she once saved Lorraine’s life during a play incident in a quarry and wonders at her ingratitude. Angela sees everything as it affects her with little empathy for the lives others around her lead.

When the girls meet the handsome Stevie, just released from borstal, he is immediately attracted to the slim and pretty Lorraine. Angela, large and overweight, is used to such a reaction but wishes to have her share in Stevie’s attentions. She contrives to meet up with him alone where he brushes her aside. When Lorraine then starts to spend time with him Angela feels she must act, for Lorraine’s own good, and sets in motion a series of events which will have devastating consequences for her friend.

Family life is explored. Angela derides her talented and determined little sister, who also aspires to a life beyond her upbringing. She despises her parents with their soap operas and nail pictures, not noticing that they are doing the best they can for her. Angela is close to her grandmother but too preoccupied to take action when potential health issues are revealed.

The writing evoked a life that I found hard to stomach: the casual acceptance of priests ‘fiddling’ with alter boys; the culpability of young girls who went alone with a boy and were then raped; the coarse and cruel language of sexism, racism and bigotry that was prevalent and merely shrugged away.

The reader is given an insight into the poverty of attitude and aspiration that a lack of money can engender in some. However, I questioned if my desire for Angela to change was simply a wish that she should become more like those I am comfortable with, and acknowledged the conceit and intolerance this lays bare.

A strongly written, discomfiting, coming of age tale in a setting close to home yet unfamiliar. I am glad to have read it, and now need to work my way through the thoughts engendered.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint Publishing.